Raisa Velasco Castedo '12 Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Goes Green in D.C.

Raisa Velasco Castedo applied for a Johnson Opportunity Grant to attend the 14th Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference in Washington, D.C. A chemistry-engineering major from Bolivia, Castedo worked with physics professor Dan Mazilu on an R.E. Lee Project during the summer of 2009. She is the outreach committee chair for the Student Association for International Learning (SAIL) and a member of the Campus Food Committee.


I open my eyes and my cell phone is blasting a tone called "Feeling Groovy." This annoying ringtone sounds much like a disco song from the 70's, but serves well its purpose: to wake me up! It is 6 a.m. in Washington D.C. and I am already running late for the second day of the 14th Annual Green Chemistry and Engineering Conference. I jump from the bed straight into the shower. A delicious breakfast is waiting for me in the foyer at The Capital Hilton Hotel, where the conference is being held, and I would not like to miss it.

I start to feel butterflies in my stomach--the wrong kind though--when I see the black two-piece suit in the closet. I have worn W&L hoodies and jeans for nine months, thus a two-piece suit is definitely intimidating. I make my way to the window. It is 6:30 a.m. by now; lots and lots of people are rushing along the streets. Most of them wear suits. Some wear uniforms, and a few wear casual clothes. Women walk confidently in their high heels, men wear all sort of ties, and youngsters fix their eyes on their iPods. Suddenly, I feel like I belong in Washington D.C., like I am just another person on their way to work. The two-piece suit now looks more friendly. However, I think the jacket will have to wait because Google indicates that the temperature outside is 95F!

I lock my door and I head out into the busy city. Before reaching the Foggy-Bottom metro station, I have to walk a few blocks across the George Washington University Campus. I pass by a small hippopotamus sculpture and take a few photos. Legend has it that the Potomac River was once home to these animals. I enter the metro station and I try to erase the confused look off my face. One of the reasons I choose to attend a conference in Washington D.C. is that I wanted to be in a big city and gain confidence. Learn to figure things out by myself.

John C. Warner, president of the Warner Babcock Institute for green chemistry, gives the welcome remarks and talks about his work with the ACS. I share a table with some graduate students from Yale University and some researchers from the USDA. The keynote speaker for the day is Paul Anastas, who is the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Research and Development of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He showed two photos: one of the oil well in the Gulf of Mexico and the other one of a dying pelican covered in oil. He stated that "when we define a goal, we define the consequences of our actions." Thus, the companies who decided to drill miles into the ocean and extract oil should have been aware of the consequences of an oil spill. The technology used to drill these wells in the ocean is highly developed. However, the technology to clean the spill needs to improve. The first principle of green chemistry is prevention. "It is better to prevent waste than to treat or clean up waste after it is formed."

Once the keynote address is finished, I attend the session for coatings and polymers. Throughout the conference, several sessions are are taking place at the same time in different rooms: Education, 12 Principles, Analytical Chemistry, Pharmaceuticals, Biomimicry, Biomaterials, Environmental Health Sciences, Energy, Synthesis and Catalysis, Electronic Materials, and Sustainable Design. Each session has 4 or 5 speakers, and attendees switch rooms according to their interests. The most interesting presentation for me that morning is "Drug Free Polymer Composite Nanocoated Coronary Stents," given by Professor Sundar Manoharan, who works in the Department of Chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, India. Current treatments for atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries due to accumulation of cholesterol and cells) include inserting a stent--a tubular metal mesh--into the affected artery. The stent is meant to normalize the blood flow. However, the fat plaque adheres quickly to the metal stent inhibiting the blood flow again. Professor Manoharan and his research team have developed a biocompatible, chemically inert, and inexpensive coating for the stent that inhibits the adhesion of fat plaque. This coating will greatly increase the success of future coronary stent procedures.

The lunch speaker for the day is Steven Webster, who is the Senior Vice President of Research and Technology Commercialization for 3M. Mr. Webster compliments the new green technologies that have been presented in the conference, but emphasizes that "consumers do not buy technology. They buy products." From his entrepreneurial point of view, researchers should turn their technologies into more accessible products. Then, he introduced the new "green" Post-It notes, which are made of recycled paper and are also biodegradable.

After lunch I attend the Environmental Health Sciences session, which proves to be very educational. Pete Myers, an Environmental Health Sciences Activist in Charlottesville, gives a presentation called "21st Century Toxicology: What every Chemist Should Know." He explains the dangers of Bisphenol A (BPA) and Phthalates. These chemicals are found in many household items like food can linings, plastic bottles, CD's and DVD's, shower curtains, vinyl floor, shampoos and body lotions. BPA is related to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, miscarriages and ovarian cysts, while Phthalates cause irregularities in testosterone levels and lead to reduced sperm counts and testicular atrophies. What is most shocking about these two substances is that even in very small doses they are harmful to humans. His message encourages scientists to develop hazard-free chemicals.

By 5 o'clock in the afternoon, my brain is overwhelmed with all sort of chemical reactions. But I feel enthusiastic about the last speaker of the day: Robert Grubbs. He is an American scientist who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2005. He talks about his work with olefin metathesis and Ruthenium.

On the ride back to Lexington, I think about all the interesting people I've met and all the exciting research projects I heard about. I felt so happy to be in Washington D.C and thankful for having received a Johnson Summer Opportunity Grant. It gave me the opportunity to experience a few days of what my life might like a few years from now.